An inquisitive young painter, Hilmi Johandi, elucidates on how cinema culture has captivated his imagination and discusses his personal investigations into transplanting framing techniques onto the traditional canvas
Words: Elizabeth Gan
Photos: Eddie Teo
One of the fifteen selected artists to be represented on the Southeast Asian Platform at Art Stage earlier this year, Hilmi Johandi has had a remarkable start to his nascent artistic career since graduating from LASALLE College of the Arts-Goldsmiths only two years ago. After a successful debut solo exhibition titled Dusk to Dawn at the OCBC Art Space, Hilmi went on to clinch the The Young Talent Programme Winner’s Solo Exhibition Prize for 2013/2014, resulting in the showcase of his work, Framing Camellia, at ION Art Gallery.
Hardly a hustling creative – the paradigm of artist-entrepreneurs that has emerged of late –Hilmi isn’t the withdrawn solitary artist either. Instead, my photographer and I found ourselves in the company of a deep-thinking and cordial young gentleman when we paid him a visit at his studio space in an industrial compound in Ubi, a space shared with four other artists. There, a simple book-lined shelf, small working desk and two canvases of work-in-progress are set against a backdrop of reference images and notes make up a tidy work space which could well be considered an embodiment of Gustave Flaubert’s dictum: “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”.
How did you come into the fine arts?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to be an artist or a painter. I had enrolled in an engineering course in polytechnic because I felt that attending the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) would have made my parents uncomfortable. Like most Singaporean parents, they worry about the financial stability of the artistic fields. But the urge to pursue something more creative compelled my switch to LaSalle.
My intentions then veered towards graphic design or film instead of the fine arts. It was only after my foundation year that I surprised myself with the realisation that I could ‘paint’ and things became clearer from there. I find myself craving for the excitement that painting brings and the appreciation of my work by others. That fulfillment for me is much like a customer enjoying a meal that has been cooked by a chef. My dad’s a nasi padang cook so I guess I must have derived my drive and satisfaction from him!
In 1839, the late French painter Paul Delaroche famously declared ‘from today, painting is dead’. Yet clearly, this debate never ceases. Tell us a bit more about what painting is to you, and who inspire you.
Peter Doig, Michael Borreman, Lucien Freud and local abstract painter Ian Woo are some of the painters I look up to. I am still at a very embryonic phase in my pursuit of painting – which really is a lifelong journey—so it would be a bit of a stretch for me to make a lucid point. For now, I would say painting for me is about portraying the accumulated experiences, knowledge and interests up till a specific point in time.
I have found a sort of ‘spiritual’ connection to the material of paint. It is not a connection that one gets with every medium or mode of working. For example, the tools and processes of printmaking is a little too structured and linear for my liking.
I teach primary school students on a freelance basis and during the period of time that I had to teach watercolours, the gestural watercolour technique started through my work which I thought worked very well so that was how it went.
Now in retrospect, I also think about my wonderful O Levels Art teacher who introduced graphic artists such as M C Escher. I have come to be aware of my subconscious habit of considering perspectives and planes as he has done in his works.
Would you be able to walk us through what this ongoing practice-led research between film and painting means?
Gilles Deleuze is a critical theorist who has greatly influenced my work. He does not see the cinematic image as a fictitious world that resembles reality. Instead, he focuses on the frame, seeing it as resulting in the deterritorialisation of the image. Extreme close-ups and long shots can be projected on the same screen and how they are accommodated changes their relationship to each other. I am interested in translating this style of film images with its time and movement, on what is otherwise a static surface that is the canvas.
My subject of interest is in the pre and post-independence era of the 50s and 60s so I work through archival photographs, tourists’ shots, old films and found footages through YouTube amongst others. Picking out figures, spaces, objects from such images which I find interesting, I then compose and synthesize them into a kind of montage that I feel would convey the cinematic image through painting.
Who are some of your favourite film-makers and why?
Hitchcock because of his ability to engage psychologically with suspense. And there’s P. Ramlee’s whose works I’ve caught through YouTube quite a bit. I like the fact that it is low-budget but the best was made out of it. And there’s also the comedic timing and dramatic horror that one must not discount. I think they are somewhat specific to our cultural predispositions. On another hand, I am also intrigued by the narratives and social issues of the 50s and 60s that were brought up through his films. I find myself gravitating towards looking at footage of pre and post-independence situations, the nature of urbanization and modernization. I am also a huge fan of Japanese film makers of that era such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. They have subtle but stunning camera work.
What are you currently working on and what can we look forward to in 2015?
Having made large pieces of late, I am working on an attempt at making many small pieces, but setting them up in an art salon style where the ‘fragments’ can make sense as a whole. The physicality of one canvas is its frame so it will be a new challenge for me to work with many small paintings. I am still keen to continue with my theme of working with archival footages and photos, using film language, etc…except that I am keen to push it a little further by having works with different perspectives of the same painterly space with the same figures. I have recently concluded a group show with Bradley Foisset and Luke Heng at Galerie Steph. Without further plans for the year, I am glad to have time and mental space to read and continue to develop my painting language.